Monday, June 12, 2006

What I've been reading

Beyond Black
by Hilary Mantel
It starts off kind of odd; toward the end it gets weird. I did not love this book.

After hearing Mantel in interview some years ago and deciding I really didn't like her (tho' I'd quite enjoyed The Giant, O'Brien) — the self-absorption, the self-aggrandizement, the flakiness — this story sounded just too interesting to pass up. It had great reviews and Maud Newton's endorsement as one of the top books she'd read in 2005.

(What do you do when a friend loves a book you hate, or vice versa? Or a blog acquaintance, or someone you respect. I turns my world upside down. That Maud Newton liked Beyond Black I can accept, respect, appreciate. That Mimi Smartypants is loving Percival Everett's Glyph, a book I abhorred, is driving me fucking insane. Every time I click over, I'm reminded of this, and all her words are then filtered through this tiny piece of my consciousness and the pleasure is lost. Another piece of my consciousness is meanwhile reconsidering my assessment of the book: did my book-reading capacity fail me? what am I missing? is it me, it must be me? Or else, Mimi Smartypants is full of shit, and then, where does that leave me?)

While the characters of Beyond Black are wholly believable, they're not likeable. Which is fine.

It turns out that the themes I expected to be explored weren't so much. Which is fine. Seeing the psychics at first through Colette's eyes, I expected more of a struggle between her skepticism and her desire to believe. Maybe the ending speaks to this a little bit — the tie between the "real" ghosts and the ghosts of Alison's past. I can't decide if it's too ambiguous or not ambiguous enough to satisfy me. Either way, this isn't a major theme, which is a problem for no one but me and my readerly expectations.

So I didn't love it. Yet, more than any book I've read in recent memory, I'm dying to know how it came about — which part of the story came first, what was the kernel. The novel didn't speak to me, but I have a lot of appreciation for the way the characters were unfolded and how the story was told.

by Kate Mosse
I was only mildly interested in reading this one, but knowing it was the next Reading Matters book club book and coming across a copy bearing a $5 sticker on a fine day conducive to impulse purchases, I started in.

The blurb on the cover ("Eat your heart out, Dan Brown, this is the real thing.") is just plain crass. Although it's clear from the historical detail that research for this book must've been well underway before Brown's Code ever hit the shelves, Labyrinth was obviously rushed through its final stages so as to cash in as early as possible. (I stumbled across a lot of errors that should've been caught at proofreading.)

The writing's bad. The mechanism tying present to past is clunky. There's a fantasy element — our modern-day heroine "remembers" the past in her blood (an idea that bears a certain amount of poetry, I think) — that comes across as quite stupid; the book can't decide between being a fantasy or historical novel, and the attempt to blend these elements fails. It lacks focus and finesse.

Still, I read through to the end. My brain needed a little rest and certainly couldn't handle the decision to abandon it and choose to pick up something else. I can't recommend it to anyone though. I liked The DaVinci Code better.

The Gambler
by Fyodor Dostoevsky
This is the book I've had in my purse the last few months. Reading opportunities away from the house are few, but I'd been riding public transportation a lot last week (because), so I finally got past the introductory scenes and finished it. It stands out from the other reading for its passion. It's short, witty, full of astute observations, just passionate, about women, gambling, everything. Any old idea spouted from any character's mouth is so alive.

"If," replied Astley, "you do not care to hear their names coupled together, may I ask you what you mean by the expressions 'this Frenchman,' 'this Russian lady,' and 'there being anything between them'? Why do you call them so particularly a 'Frenchman' and a 'Russian lady'?"

"Ah, I see you are interested, Mr. Astley. But it is a long, long story, and calls for a lengthy preface. At the same time, the question is an important one, however ridiculous it may seem at the first glance. A Frenchman, Mr. Astley, is merely a fine figure of a man. With this you, as a Britisher, may not agree. With it I also, as a Russian, may not agree — out of envy. Yet possibly our good ladies are of another opinion. For instance, one may look upon Racine as a broken-down, hobbledehoy, perfumed individual — one may even be unable to read him; and I too may think him the same, as well as, in some respects, a subject for ridicule. Yet about him, Mr. Astley, there is a certain charm, and, above all things, he is a great poet — though one might like to deny it. Yes, the Frenchman, the Parisian, as a national figure, was in process of developing into a figure of elegance before we Russians had even ceased to be bears. The Revolution bequeathed to the French nobility its heritage, and now every whippersnapper of a Parisian may possess manners, methods of expression, and even thoughts that are above reproach in form, while all the time he himself may share in that form neither in initiative nor in intellect nor in soul — his manners, and the rest, having come to him through inheritance. Yes, taken by himself, the Frenchman is frequently a fool of fools and a villain of villains. Per contra, there is no one in the world more worthy of confidence and respect than this young Russian lady. De Griers might so mask his face and play a part as easily to overcome her heart, for he has an imposing figure, Mr. Astley, and this young lady might easily take that figure for his real self — for the natural form of his heart and soul — instead of the mere cloak with which heredity has dowered him. And even though it may offend you, I feel bound to say that the majority also of English people are uncouth and unrefined, whereas we Russian folk can recognise beauty wherever we see it, and are always eager to cultivate the same. But to distinguish beauty of soul and personal originality there is needed far more independence and freedom than is possessed by our women, especially by our younger ladies. At all events, they need more EXPERIENCE.

Beautiful (although I prefer the Garnett translation I have in hand)! Takes my breath away! Read it!

Also, it leads perfectly to my next reads, via the roulette wheel (red and black) and Russian sensibilities (war and peace).

The Red and the Black
by Stendhal
Why, why, why am I so desperate to read this book? I've read the introduction, historical notes, essays, etc. I've read only the first few pages, and I am in love. I've deliberately held back though, hoping it might be chosen as the next book for discussion at Reading Middlemarch. Alas, it did not seem likely.

But if the traveler keeps on walking, no more than another hundred paces up the hill he will see a distinguished-looking house and, if he looks through an adjoining wrought-iron gate, a very fine garden. Beyond that, he will see a horizon shaped by Burgundian hills, which seems to have been put there expressly for the purpose of pleasing the eye. This view will help the traveler forget the foul smell of petty financial transactions, which had begun to asphyxiate him.

Quite stupidly as I was falling in love with the first 4 pages, I mused aloud that I ought to try reading it in French, it's so good, it must be so much better in French, and really I ought to challenge myself more. It's as good as a vow, as I said it out loud and someone heard me. So I need to get myself a copy in French before proceeding.

Also, it strikes me as a lovely companion piece to the actual Reading Middlemarch selection. My Napoleonic summer!

War and Peace
by Leo Tolstoy
The people have spoken! War and Peace is the next book under discussion by the Reading Middlemarch reading group. (Stupid short-sighted blog name!) I'm less enthusiastic about this choice than I was about some of the other options (having a taste of both Dostoyevsky and Stendhal in my mouth), but hey, "greatest novel ever written" and all that, so whatever.

I don't have a copy yet. I spent a couple hours in bookstores yesterday afternoon comparing translations. I'm leaning toward the 1968 Dunnigan, which apart from satisfying my readability criterion is declared superior by various internet authorities, although an argument is made for Briggs. What do I know?

by me
To read Stendhal in French.

To post here more regularly in more manageable bite-sized chunks, to prevent staleness and bloating. I keep forgetting lately that blogging is good for me. I feel so unexercised (and unexorcised).

That is all for now.
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